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PC, Nintendo Switch
October 24, 2020
Beginning as gruesome folklore about a headless horseman, Pumpkin Jack reenvisions the myth as a colourful 3D-action platformer. Solo developer Nicolas Meyssonier presents a game where “Medievil meets Jak and Daxter”, with several puzzles, collectables, and Halloween themed stages. A short playable demo from PAX Online 2020 highlighted the nostalgic potential for this jaunty project. After playing through the entire adventure, Pumpkin Jack certainly captures the child-friendly and spooky spirit of October. Unfortunately the gameplay leaves things feeling a little sour, much like a jack-o-lantern on 30 November.
The titular character is a haughty and confident warrior of The Devil who must find a pesky Wizard trying to put an end to the Curse of the Eternal Night. Players must fight ghouls and spirits, platforming challenges, headless puzzles, and a range of mini-games to finally cement Pumpkin Jack’s rule over the realm of the Boredom Kingdom.
The story is straight-forward enough to not deter from the gameplay and art style. Pumpkin Jack, the hooty Owl and the snarky Crow have wit and charisma despite having no actual voice lines. Every character has the signature gibberish speak of the Banjo-Kazooie games which fits the tone perfectly. Lines from characters in-game will often poke fun at the story and may even reference other parts of the Halloween culture with a whimsical jest and a hint of cynicism. While this narrative is clearly aimed to be accessible for players of all ages, it isn’t dumbed down to a dull level.
Between stages, a well-animated cutscene plays. Here, the narrator speaks of the events of the last level, recapping exactly what Pumpkin Jack has just done. It is repetitive story-telling and rarely adds any useful information that serves the adventure. It may add thematic effect, yet focusing on what’s to come in the following stage rather than what happened would’ve made these cutscenes feel more justified.
“Atmosphere is certainly where Pumpkin Jack truly shines… it screams PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64 games with how bouncy everything is.”
Atmosphere is certainly where Pumpkin Jack truly shines. The game is full of diverse environments with luminous purples, pinks, oranges, and greens. The journey starts in a spooky farm and moves onto the Cursed Swamp among five other traditional Halloween backdrops. The final stage is a slight detour from expectations but still holds the sprightly personality of the adventure. Even the animations like flailing around with a shovel in combat or the gramophone dance scenes add to that charm. It screams PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64 games with how bouncy everything is.
The audio design has so much care for the theme and absolutely echoes Hallows’ Eve. The electronic twangs of a theremin and the mysterious gentle taps of a vibraphone among other likely instruments create a familiar and fitting score. The squawks of crows, the rattle of skeleton bones, and the jingle of lamps as the mythological legend springs by adds another layer to the thematic mix. The treatment for audio and visual design in old-school platformers is arguably why they hold such a beloved memory and that’s exactly what Meyssonier replicates here. Pumpkin Jack nails the perfect blend of Halloween and our favourite 3D-platformers.
Like all trick-or-treating, there’s always going to be a few dud chocolates in the bag. The combat in Pumpkin Jack is monotonous. This gourd collects up to four weapons including a sentient sword and a magical aura. While each has unique designs and abilities, they don’t change up typical combat. There will always be an area of effect, a standard, and a jumping attack that Pumpkin Jack will use to fight enemies.
The game boasts “using the correct counter weapon at critical moments”, yet this is simply not effective enough to be true. All attacks have a lock-on which means players can spam the attack button within proximity and easily defeat monsters. Besides a slight difference in range with some weapons, the combat lacks excitement.
Unfortunately, this bleeds into the ghouls and ghosts Pumpkin Jack encounters. Each stage has a slightly different handful of enemies. However, there isn’t much variety in their movement or how to approach them. Crows will dart towards, skeletons will swing and throw fireballs, and another type of skeleton will charge a spinning attack with a sword. Other than a few key creatures that pop-up in the Skele-Town stage, the general fare of mobs are deadening in more than one way.
Additionally, the physics and controls can feel off at the worst time. At several points jumping around stages with bottomless pits had ended in death due to floaty controls. This is exasperated with select attacks that stop Pumpkin Jack dead in his tracks and performing them at the wrong time results in another sudden death. While the game has plenty of checkpoints for its extremely linear stages, the poor physics become mildly annoying.
Sprinkled throughout each level are an assortment of mini-games to break-up the usual gameplay. Pumpkin Jack will reach spots where he’ll remove his head and lock into a puzzle room or beat an on-rails dodging rally. The puzzles start off okay with an interesting ball and physics game. Like the rest of the gameplay, this swiftly becomes tedious, particularly with the memory and matching shapes games. The pumpkin head itself moves so slowly and these side missions are often repeated within each short stage.
The more engaging on-rails parts are similar. The first is a minecart ride, pressing the right buttons or keys to pass each obstacle. However, these can also become repetitive and even unfair. A cart racing mini-game has competitors rubber-banding back to front position like Mario Kart. At the very last second, an enemy will rush ahead and win the race resulting in retrying the frustrating section. At one-point, Pumpkin Jack’s crow companion even exclaims “when will this torture end?”. Mini-games that shake up the gameplay are supposed to be fun, not a chore.
“A game can be accessible but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be challenging.”
Boss battles, while true to their inspiration, leave little challenge or interest. Every climactic fight in Pumpkin Jack follows the formulaic three-phase structure. While this isn’t inherently bad and designed well in other games, here it is plainly repetitive. The living squash needs to dodge a pattern of projectiles, wait for the glaringly obvious vulnerable window to strike, rinse, and repeat two more times. That’s it.
Boss battles should incorporate the newest weapon or mechanics from the stage prior. Boss battles should feel rewarding and tricky. Boss battles need to be satisfying. There is an amazing write-up by Mike Stout, of Ratchet & Clank fame, about the basics of exciting boss battle design and Pumpkin Jack does not tick any of those boxes. Unfortunately, every big baddie is tackled the exact same way and it’s beyond tiring.
Above all, Pumpkin Jack is too easy. Every breakable object and enemy will drop glowing green orbs that refill the player’s health. The majority of creatures do minor damage and even in fights of several skeletons, there doesn’t seem to be much risk with automated lock-on attacks. Combining this with all the dreary combat and boss battles, there isn’t much tension. Besides the unfair races and occasional floaty platforming, it won’t be tough to complete Pumpkin Jack in a short few hours with no deaths. Other than collecting all the red crow skulls to unlock skins or finding the gramophones, there’s little replayability too. A game can be accessible but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be challenging.
With Halloween quickly approaching and bringing with it the always popular desire for a nostalgia trip, Pumpkin Jack sets a fun seasonal tone but has ghastly gameplay. Nicolas Meyssonier clearly put a lot of work into the visual and audio concept of this game. With over three years of development and many modelling videos online, the solo dev shows passion for the energetic old-school platformer style. While the style is certainly remarkable, the gameplay is the exact opposite. There isn’t much to think or do within combat besides spam the attack button and dodge. Admittedly, rushing through each stage and finishing the game was purely driven by wanting to explore the outstanding art. However, after only three to four hours the adventure ended anticlimactically. Pumpkin Jack is like any Halloween candy; appealing for all ages but isn’t going to hold your interest for long.